THIS isn’t the first time Gareth Southgate has stepped forward when England needed him most.
Twenty years ago last summer, a pulsating Euro 96 semi-final against Germany at Wembley had ended all square. The first 10 penalties of the shoot-out had been impeccable and a place in the final would now be decided on sudden death.
Terry Venables needed a volunteer. As others hung back and avoided eye contact, Southgate stuck his hand up.
We all know how it ended, of course. Andreas Kopke saved and Germany went on to shatter the belief that football was coming home by beating the Czech Republic in the final.
What followed for Southgate was a personal nightmare. The missed penalty dominated his thoughts for months afterwards, no doubt in part due to the tabloids camping outside his house for a time. Mum Barbara even had her say. ‘Why didn’t he just belt it?’ she was quoted as saying.
Some would have crumbled under such intense pressure. Others would have hid. But not Southgate, who retained a stoical air and was even able to later laugh with team-mates about the events of that fateful June night at Wembley.
“We’d have a bit of banter at Gareth’s expense,” reveals Dean Windass, a team-mate of Southgate at Middlesbrough, to The Yorkshire Post. “Things like asking, ‘Anyone fancy a game of penalties for £100?’ at the end of a training session. Gareth just laughed, he was brilliant like that.”
Southgate went on to play for another decade at the highest level after the nadir of that penalty miss. He also made another 48 appearances for his country.
Clearly, therefore, the Football Association have turned to a man who can cope with a crisis such as the one facing the England national team in the wake of Sam Allardyce’s departure.
Losing to Iceland at Euro 2016 was bad enough but the unseemly goings-on that led to Southgate having to answer an SOS call that he had rejected in the summer have left English football at rock bottom.
Still, the one thing about stooping so low is that the only way is up. Victory over Malta, ranked 176th in the latest FIFA rankings, is a given. Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier in Slovenia isn’t overly arduous, either.
That leaves next month’s Wembley clashes with Scotland and Spain, two fixtures that are likely to decide Southgate’s longer-term future. Windass, who spent two years at the Riverside with Southgate, hopes his old team-mate can remain in charge beyond that November 15 friendly with Spain.
“I will be honest and say I never thought he would become a manager,” said the former Hull City striker. “Gareth was a quiet, nice man. Someone who everyone could rely on, a real backbone of the club. The ultimate professional. And a funny lad, too.
“He joined in with the banter, even when it was about him such as the missed penalty. He always came on the Christmas ‘do’ despite not being a big drinker. And, don’t forget, this was a time when it was the old school drinking culture.
“A very reserved lad but one of those who you knew would be eight out of 10 every single week. He was a leader in that respect and there was also a nasty streak in him. By that I mean he would lay into anyone not doing their job.
“If I didn’t keep the ball up front even in training, he’d be straight on to me. But, in terms of being a manager, I didn’t see it back then despite him being a real leadership figure out on the pitch.
“I’d left Boro a few years before he became manager but that was almost forced on him. By that I mean, others expected him to take charge so Gareth, being Gareth, took it on.”
Ah yes, the Boro job. Southgate’s sole frontline managerial role in the Premier League and one that ended in the sack. Steve McClaren’s departure to take charge of England created a vacancy that Steve Gibson wanted the club’s captain to fill after initially being turned down by Terry Venables and Martin O’Neill.
A ’phone call while on holiday with his family that summer alerted Southgate to the Boro chairman’s intention. Within days, the then 35-year-old had called time on his playing career – Boro’s UEFA Cup final loss to Seville was his last appearance – to embark on a career in management.
All went well for a couple of seasons but relegation in May 2009 was followed by the sack in the autumn, bizarrely after a home win over Preston North End had left the Teesside club second in the Championship.
As happened in the wake of Euro 96, Southgate dealt with the adversity in a cool, level-headed manner. It is a trait that will serve him well in what many have described down the years as, ‘The Impossible Job’.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gareth get the results in these four games and for the players to be keen for him to stay on,” added Windass.
“It should be an Englishman who manages the England team. And Gareth has been successful in the Under-21s.
“The ball is in the FA’s court. They have the decision to make. Maybe Gareth will do these four games and then go back to the Under-21s or maybe he will get the job full-time. Whatever does happen, Gareth will be the same level-headed, decent fella that he has always been.
“Nothing affects him, as he showed with how he handled what happened to him in Euro 96. To me, that is true leadership.
“I have seen it said that the two biggest jobs in English football are the Prime Minister and the England manager. Gareth is probably the only bloke who could do both. Put it this way, I wouldn’t be surprised one day to see him walk out of Number Ten.”